“On The History of Early Christianity”, by Friedrich Engels (1820-1895)

The New Testament’s Apocalypse, Revelation of John, 7. The image depicts the 144,000 elect Jews. By Beatus d’Osma, 11th century.


On The History of Early Christianity

Friedrich Engels

“The history of early Christianity has notable points of resemblance with the modern working-class moviment. Like the latter, Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people: it first appeared as the religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights, of peoples subjugated or dispersed by Rome. Both Christianity and the workers’ socialism preach forthcoming salvation from bondage and misery; Christianity places this salvation in a life beyond, after death, in heaven; socialism places it in this world, in a transformation of society.

[…] The parallel between the two historic phenomena forces itself upon our attention as early as the Middle Ages in the first risings of the oppressed peasants and particularly of the town plebeians. These risings, like all mass movements of the Middle Ages, were bound to wear the mask of religion and appeared as the restoration of early Christianity from spreading degeneration; but behind the religious exaltation there was every time a very tangible worldly interest.

Cages for the leaders of the Münster Rebellion (16th century) at the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church. Photo by Rüdiger Wolk.

[…] This trait pervades the whole of the Middle Ages until it gradually fades away after the German Peasant War (1535) to revive again with the working-men Communists after 1830. The French revolutionary Communists, in particular Wilhelm Weitling (1808 – 1871) and his supporters, referred to early Christianity long before Ernest Renan’s (1823-1892) words: “If I wanted to give you an idea of the early Christian communities I would teel you to look at a local section of the International Working Men’s Association.”

[…] One of our best sources on the first Christians is Lucian of Samosata (AD 125 – AD 180), the Voltaire of classic antiquity, who was equally sceptic towards every kind of religious superstition and therefore had neither pagan-religious nor political grounds to treat the Christian otherwise than as some other kind of religious community. On the contrary, he mocked them all for their superstition, those who prayed to Jupiter no less than those who prayed to Christ; from his shallow rationalistic point of view one sort of superstition was as stupid as the other.

[…] German criticism of the Bible has as one of its main representatives Bruno Bauer (1809-1882). His greatest service consists not merely in having given a pitiless criticism of the Gospels and the Epistles of the apostles, but also in having seriously undertaken an inquiry into the Jewish, Greco-Alexandrian and Greco-Roman elements that first opened for Christianity the career of a universal religion.

Plato, Seneca, Aristotle: some of the roots of Christianity in the Greco-Roman world.

Plato, Seneca, Aristotle: some of the roots of Christianity in the Greco-Roman world.

The legend that Christianity arose ready and complete out of Judaism and, starting from Palestine, conquered the world with its dogma and morals already defined in the main, has been untenable since Bruno Bauer; the enormous influence which the Philonic school of Alexandria and Greco-Roman philosophy – Platonic and mainly Stoic (especially Seneca) – had on Christianity, which became the state religion under Constantine, is far from being defined in detail, but its existence has been proved and that is primarily the achievement of Bruno Bauer.

He laided the foundation of the proof that Christianity was not imported from outside – from Judea – into the Romano-Greek world and imposed on it, but that, at least in its world-religion form, it is that world’s product. (…) Not Galilee and Jerusalem, but Alexandria and Rome, according to Bauer, are the birthplaces of the new religion.

* * * *

We have in the New Testament a single book  which belongs to the very beginning of the Christian era, and it must have been written between 67 and 68 (after Christ). It reflects with the most naive fidelity the ideas of the beginning of that era. This book, therefore, in my opinion, is a far more important source from which to define what early Christianity really was than all the rest of the New Testament – which, in its present form, is of a far later date. This book is the so-called Revelation of John

[…] That was a time when even in Rome and Greece – and still more in Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt – an absolutely uncritical mixture of the crassest superstitions of the most varying peoples was indiscriminately accepted and complemented by pious deception and downright charlatanism; a time in which miracles, ecstasies, visions, apparitions, divining, gold-making, cabbala and other secret magic played a primary role. It was in that atmosphere, and, moreover, among a class of people who were more inclined than any other to listen to these supernatural fantasies, that Christianity arose.

[…] All the apocalypses attribute to themselves the right to deceive their readers. Not only were they written as a rule by quite different people than their alleged authors, and mostly by people who lived much later; as far as their main content is concerned, they prophesy only things that had already happened long before and were quite well known to the real author.

[…] Thus in the year 164, the author of the Book of Daniel makes Daniel, who is supposed to have lived in the time of Nebuchadnezzar (605 BC – 562 BC), prophesy the rise and fall of the Persian and Macedonian empires and beggining of the Roman Empire, in order by this proof of his gift of prophecy to prepare the reader to accept the final prophecy that the people of Israel will overcome all hardships and finally be victorious.

[…] The John who claims to be the author of the Book of Revelation, in any case, was a man of great distinction among the Christians of Asia Minor. […] The most characteristic in the whole book is that it never occurs to the author to refer to himself and his co-believers by any other name than that of Jews. He reproaches the members of the sects in Smyrna and Philadelphia against whom he fulminates with the fact that they ‘say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.’

[…] Here it is therefore not a case of conscious Christians but of people who say they are Jews. Granted, their Judaism is a new stage of development of the earlier one… Hence, when the saints appeared before the throne of God there came first 144.000 Jews, 12.000 from each tribe, and only after them the countless masses of heathens converted to this renovated Judaism.

[…] There was among the early Christians a division into countless sects, which was the very means by which discussion and thereby later unity was achieved. We already find it in this book, which is beyond doubt the oldest Christian document, and our author fights it with the same irreconcilable ardour as the great sinful world outside. There were those who said they were Jews but where the synagogue of Satan; the supporters of Balaam, who is called a false prophet, in Pergamos; those who said they were apostles but were not, in Ephesus; and finally, in Thyatira, the supporters of the false prophetess who is described as Jezebel.

“The Defenestration of Jezebel”, by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

[…] Our John had his own views on the sexual relations allowed to orthodox Jews. He says (XIV, 4) of the 144.000 heavenly Jews: ‘These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins.” And, in fact, in our John’s heaven there is not a single woman. He therefore belongs to the trend, which also often appears in other early Christian writings, that considers sexual relations generally as sinful.  He calls Rome the Great Whore with thom the kings of the earth have commited fornication and have become drunk with the wine of fornication…

[…] These passages in the messages are an obvious indication of a phenomenon common to all times of great agitation, that the traditional bonds of sexual relations, like all other fetters, are shaken off. In the first centuries of Christianity, too, there appeared often enough, side by side with ascetics which mortified the flesh, the tendency to extend Christian freedom to a more or less unrestrained intercourse between man and woman.

[…] That is all the dogmatic content of the messages. The rest consists in exhorting the faithful to be zealous in propaganda, to courageous and proud confession of their faith in face of the foe, to unrelenting struggle against the enemy both within and without – and as far as this goes they could just as well have been written by one of the prophetically minded enthusiasts of the International.

[…] What kind of people were the first Christians recruited from? Mainly from the ‘labouring and burdened’, the members of the lowest strata of the people… small peasants, who had fallen more and more into bondage through debt; emancipated slaves; and, above all, actual slaves. There was absolutely no common road to emancipation for all these elements. For all of them paradise lay lost behind them: for the ruined free men, it was the former polis, the town and the state at the samen time, of which their forefathers had been free citizens; for the war-captive slaves, the time of freedom before their subjugation and captivity; for the small peasants, the abolished gentile social system and communal land-ownership.  All that had been smitten down by the levelling iron fist of conquering Rome.

[…] The Roman Empire  had put an end once for all to the smaller unions; military might, Roman jurisdiction and the tax-collecting machinery completely dissolved the traditional inner organization. To the loss of independence and distinctive organization, it was added the forcible plunder by military and civil authorities, who took the treasures of the subjugated away from them, and then lent them back at usurious rates in order to extort still more out of them. This plunged the peasants into ever deeper bondage to the usurers, gave rise to great differences in fortune, making the rich richer and the poor completely destitute.

Ruins of the Colosseum, in Rome, present day.

Ruins of the Colosseum, in Rome, present day. According to Engels, Rome is considered by John as the Great Whore of Babylon.

Any resistance of isolated small tribes or towns against gigantic Roman world power was hopeless. Where was the way out, salvation, for the enslaved, oppressed and impoverished? And yet it had to be found if a great revolutionary movement was to embrace them all. This way out was found. But not in this world. In the state in which things were it could only be a religious way out. Then a new world was disclosed.

The continued life of the soul after the death of the body had gradually become a recognized article of faith throughout the Roman world. A kind of recompense or punishment of the deceased souls for their actions while on earth also received more and more general recognition. Antiquity had been too spontaneously materialistic not to attribute infinitely greater value to life on earth than to life in the kingdom of shadowss; to live on after death was considered by the Greeks rather as a misfortune.

Then came Christianity, which took recompense and punishment in the world beyond seriously and created heaven and hell. And a way out was found which would lead the labouring and burdened from this vale of woe to eternal paradise. And in fact only with the prospect of a reward in the world beyond could the stoic-philonic renunciation of the world and asceticism be exalted to the basic moral principle of a new universal religion which would inspire the oppressed masses with enthusiasm.  But this heavenly paradise does not open to the faithful by the mere fact of their death. We shall see that the kingdom of God, the capital of which is New Jerusalem, can only be conquered and opened after arduous struggles with the powers of hell…

[…] Our John can only give a superficial description of the kingdom of heaven that is reserved for the faithful. The New Jerusalem is laid out on a fairly large scale, at least according to the conceptions of the time: its area is about 5 million square kilometres, more than half the size of the United States of America. And it is built of gold and all manner of precious stones. There God lives with his people and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, neither shall there be any more pain. A pure river of water of life flows through the city, and on either side of the river are trees of life, bearing fruits every month, and the leaves of the tree ‘serve for the healing of the nations’. Here the saints shall live forever.

Such, as far as we know, was Christianity in Asia Minor, its main seat, about the year 68. No trace of any Trinity but, on the contrary, the old one and indivisible Jehovah of later Judaism, which had exalted him from the national god of the Jews to the one and supreme God of heaven and earth, where he claims rule over all nations, promising mercy to those who are converted and mercilessly smiting down the obdurate, in accordance with the ancient pardon the humble and make war on the proud…

[…] There can be no doubt that this book, with its date so originally authenticated as the year 68 or 69, is the oldest of all Christian literature. No other is written in such barbaric language, so full of Hebraisms, impossible constructions and mistakes in grammar… The reason why this oldest writing of the time when Christianity was coming into being is especially valuable for us is that it shows without any dilution what Judaism, strongly influenced by Alexandria, contributed to Christianity. All that comes later is western, Greco-Roman addition.

It was only by the intermediary of the monotheistic Jewish religion that the cultured monotheism of later Greek vulgar philosophy could clothe itself in the religious form in which alone it could grip the masses. But once this intermediary found, it could become a universal religion only in the Greco-Roman world, and that by further development in and merging with the thought material that world had achieved.”

* * * * *

Quoted from MARX & ENGELS, On Religion.
Dover Publications, Mineola / New York, 2008 / pgs. 316 to 336.

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